Friday, 17 May 2013

Theatre review: Platonov: Sons Without Fathers

The play usually titled Platonov is a bit of a Chekhov curiosity: A six-hour early play never performed in his lifetime, it was discovered locked away after the playwright's death and has been the subject of various attempts to rework it into something less unwieldy. Helena Kaut-Howson's version, titled Sons Without Fathers, focuses on the title character and the other younger figures in the story. Misha Platonov (Jack Laskey, The Bastard Love-Child of David Tennant And Daniel Radcliffe) is the 30-year-old schoolteacher in a remote Russian village. His youthful optimism gone, he's now the poster-boy for a disaffected generation - in Kaut-Howson's modernised production they find themselves a couple of decades after the fall of communism without a new ideal to replace it. Misha's search for a new meaning for his life leads, inevitably, to disaster.

Married to the quietly contented Sasha (Amy McAllister,) Misha finds himself torn between a number of other women and, despite being a drunk, sometimes aggressive and prone to making misogynistic comments, they also seem to find him irresistible.

In one of the more elaborate sets to make its way into the Arcola's main house, Iona McLeish's design is industrially metallic (as is the Russian music pumping over the speakers) although the projections were so underused they came as a distracting surprise every time they briefly popped up. Laskey carries the show by lending Misha his habitual disheveled charm, although in the opening act it's not quite enough to excuse how badly his character treats everyone. He's surrounded by an equally strong cast, with a trio of women competing for his affections: Marianne Oldham is old love Sophia, now married to his best friend (Tom Canton) but still willing to run away with Misha; Susie Trayling is entertainingly vampish as Anna Petrovna, a wealthy, riding crop-wielding widow; and even Jade Williams' mousy scientist Maria is smitten with Platonov despite her protestations that he disgusts her.

The males surrounding Platonov are not quite as vividly drawn; Isaac, an enormous hipster hairdo with student attachment (Oliver Hoare) is a reminder of Misha's lost youthful idealism, while the woodsman Osip (Mark Jax) is a lingering physical threat.

Not everything about the production worked for me: Even with half the play edited out this is still an exhausting chunk of Chekhov, and there are gaps left in the plot - why is Isaac's unseen father so keen for Osip to cripple Misha? (Of course given how Misha passes his time I can hazard a guess.) And if the pistol was intended for Russian Roulette, how did it fire twice?

Still, there's more good than bad here, with some excellent performances holding together a slightly odd play, and a highly physical production that adds an edge of danger to dispel any notions of Chekhov's work being cosy period pieces.

Platonov: Sons Without Fathers by Anton Chekhov in a version by Helena Kaut-Howson is booking until the 15th of June at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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